[Drum Roll] The Test Team

The day we’ve all waited for is almost upon us.  Gatty’s about to name his test team!  Get ready with your most nationalistic, parochially driven fervour (where are the Ulster players! How come there aren’t any Cork men!).  Before we look at that, though, a few words on yesterday’s defeat…

There was a smidge of hysteria on twitter in the aftermath of the pitiful defeat, but really, it’s too early to let the panic set in.  The team Wazza names tomorrow will bear little resemblance (in fact, probably none) to that which started yesterday.  The Lions will be getting a serious upgrade, not least in the tight five, but in particular in the back division.  That area of the team had a decidedly patched-up appearance to it, with a three-quarter line made up entirely of new arrivals, one of whom was making a bizarre, fleeting appearance.  Gatland and his management team won’t be especially upset, and said beforehand that this week was all about winning the test.  He gave his test team the ultimate protection.

All that said, it’s not the ideal outcome.  The role of the dirt trackers is supposed to be to keep the wins coming and be seen to create competition for places.  With the test team not even named yet, a handful of players should have been looking to present an unanswerable case to Warren Gatland.  This did not come to pass.

Gatland saying before the match that he was happy to lose the game and focus on the test probably didn’t send out the right message to the players.  There’s nothing like handing a team a bunch of excuses to lower their playing intensity.  Is it any wonder the tight five didn’t look especially interested in risking their health around the breakdown?

The game also exposed Gatland’s decision not to bring a third fly-half.  Although Ben Youngs had a game to forget, a player with more experience in the 10 shirt outside him would still have directed traffic a little better.  The decision to overlook the claims of James Hook or Ian Madigan looks a bit of a folly.  It’s hard not to sympathise with Stuart Hogg, a quicksilver full-back who has been denied the chance to press his claims for a test shirt by being forced to muck in in a position where he has minimal experience.

Against that, one has to balance things up against the fact that the Lions backs are really quite terribly injured.  If North, Roberts, Tuilagi and Bowe were all fully fit, we’d doubtless have seen a proper backline here.  It’s a reasonable decision not to risk any more of his able bodied test candidates.  Amid the noises demanding that Gatland is seen to honour the tradition of the Lions, it should be remembered that we are living in an age different to any previous Lions tour, one where injuries and how they are dealt with play a huge part in a team’s success or failure.  As for Stuart Hogg, what chance has he of usurping 0.5p anyway? Maybe there have to be a couple of sacrificial lambs on the tour for the greater good.  All Lions are equal but some are more equal than others.

With that in mind, here’s what we think Gatty is going for in tomorrow’s test team.

Front row: Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones

Doubts remain over Vunipola’s scrimmaging ability but he is fearsome in the loose.  Seemingly flown out as an impact player, fate has handed him a more prominent role with Healy and Jenkins at home, injured.  Tom Youngs has impressed with his unfussy, busy performances and is the best of a ropey bunch when it comes to throwing.  Adam Jones is an A-grade scrummager.

Second row: Alan-Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell

This one more or less picks itself, despite the best efforts of the impressive Geoff Parling.  Jones and O’Connell are test match animals, but they failed to provide the necessary beef in South Africa, and a change of tack was required for the second test.  Gatland presumably reckons that against Australia he can afford to go with two athletes (and another off the bench) and manage without a specialist tightead-scrummaging lock in the Shawsy / Hines mould.

Back row: Tom Croft, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip

Time to make your peace with Sam Warburton at 7, and to be fair, Tipuric didn’t make this call any harder with a tentative showing in yesterday’s loss to the Brumbies.  Tipuric at his best is sensational, but perhaps amid the hyperbole we need to bear in mind that there are days when he fails to get out of the fringes of the match, and yesterday was one of those.  Sean ‘Penalty Machine’ O’Brien didn’t really do his chances much good either, and Tom Croft was at his best against the Waratahs.  Can he bring that performance again in the test?  One can never be sure with Crofty, but at his best he is devastating, and if the hooker can throw straight, he might even deliver some off-the-top ball in the lineout.  Jamie Heaslip probably just – JUST! – holds off the challenge of Toby Faletau, one of the few to emerge with credit yesterday, but the Welshman can consider himself unlucky if he does miss out.  Heaslip will need to be at his best in the first test.

All in all, it’s a slightly lightweight pack.  Tom Youngs is small by hooking standards, there’s no secialist tighthead lock and Tom Croft is another willowy specimen.  Where’s the beef?  It’s a gamble going into the first test with such a light pack, and ominously, the very error that Ian McGeechan reckoned cost his team the series in 2009.  That was South Africa, this is Australia and the challenges they pose are very different; Gatland will be reckoning he can get away with it this time, but it might neutralise just how much the Lions can target the Aussie scrum and maul.  Never give a sucker an even break and all that.

Half-backs: Mike Phillips, Johnny Sexton

No arguments here. At scrummy, Youngs and Murray have both flattered to deceive when starting, but made an impact off the bench. It was always going to take something special to dislodge Phillips from the team – he is a key part of Gatty’s inside ball, bosh it up the middle gameplan – and we haven’t seen anything special from the backups. Outside him, it’s Sexton by miles – he has played right on the gainline and got the backs moving and looking threatening – he will be the first Irish starting test outhalf since … Ollie Campbell? Owen Farrell has continued his patchy form from season end, and Stuart Hogg is entitled to have a right old moan – he travelled as a 15 who can provide emergency backup at 10, but has played as a 10 who can give emergency backup at 15. He hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do in an environment which should suit his style – if he sees Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney in the test 23, he can feel hard done by.  It has surprised us how little gametime Phillips and Sexton hve had together – around 50 minutes by our reckoning.  Hopefully they’ve been tethered together in training.

Centre: Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll

Outside Sexton, Davies is arguably the third choice inside centre, but he’s flying – Oooooooooooooohh Jamie Roberts MD crocked himself against the Tahs, and Ooooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi is struggling to shake off a niggler and get match-fit. In will step JJV, who is having a cracking tour. Cause for concern? Definitely, despite the talent of both men – not only has Davies extremely limited experience there, but he has struggled with the blitz they want to employ. Again, this partership has had minimal gametime on the pitch together.  Having said that, BOD will make any player playing with him look brilliant – Roberts got player of the tour last time out on the back of O’Driscoll. The last player preferred for the Lions 13 jersey to Some Bloke Called Brian was Oooooooooooooooooooooohh Scott Gibbs fully 16 years ago.

Outside backs: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny

Halfpenny is bulletproof these days – he doesn’t miss kicks or tackles. Unlike in 1997, the hosts might test the kicking fullback under the high ball, but everything he touches turns to gold at the moment. It’s a different story on the wing. Of the first choice pair, Tommy Bowe will miss the first test but George North is passed fit – let’s hope he’s properly match fit. In Bowe’s place will come Alex Cuthbert – destructive on his day, he has weaknesses which can be (and have been) exploited, with the Reds taking him to the cleaners. With the turning circle of the Titanic, the Lions won’t want to see him going backwards.  Huge wingers coming into midfield channels and feeding on disguised passes from Jonny Sexton is almost certainly going to be one of the most prominent patterns the Lions will look to bring to the first test, so it will be a massive relief to Gatland that he has two giants ready to go, even if he’d prefer Bowe at 14.

Bench: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Rob Kearney

No shortage of impact.  Expect the front row to come on more or less en masse.  They may even improve the scrummaging, with Hibbard and Corbisiero stronger in that department than the starters, and Cole no slouch either.  Parling has been one of the revalations of the tour and terrific off the bench, pinching lineouts and restarts within moments of coming on.  O’Brien always looked a likely first reserve in the back row due to his versatility, and the fact he brings something different to the starters – explosive carrying ability.  Has Ben Youngs done a Danny Care on it and played himself off the squad?  Just maybe; Murray is less of a gamechanger but looks the better bet of the two right now.  Farrell takes his place by default, and in the outside back division it looks like a shoot-out between Kearney and Zebo.  Zebo has made an impact since arriving, but Kearney, better able to cover full-back, looks the pragmatist’s choice.

Meanwhile, the Australia team has been announced:

Australia: Robinson, Moore, Alexander; Horwill, Douglas; Mowen, Hooper, Palu; Genia, O’Connor; Lealiifano, Ashley-Cooper; Ioane, Folau, Barnes.

Bench: Slipper, Fainga’a, Kepu, Simmons, Gill, Phipps, Beale, McCabe

Amazingly, the Australians might have the power edge in the front five but the Lions look far more mobile. Horwill is a tough player – captain and the pack leader, he keeps the Wallaby front five together. In the back row, Mowen is a good carrier and an excellent lineout option – expect him to move to 8 if Gill comes on for Palu to make the breakdown a war zone. Gill and Hooper are both bang in form – Dave Pocock will be a loss (as we have covered before) but not as big as two years ago when Fez and SOB made hay in his absence. The front row cover is poor, and Rob Simmons is the second row backup.

In the backline, Justin Bieber starts at 10 – he may not fnish the series there (Beale or possibly Cooper will) but he attacks the gainline well, and, especially with Lilo outside, has every chance of exploiting any dog-legs the Lions might leave. Lilo keeps Pat McCabe out of the Brumbies team, and has been given the nod here for the first test.  Barnes clings to a place, holding off Nick Cummins with  Israel Folau on the wing – turning out for Straya in his third code. The mega-hyped Folau has the potential to be a real earner for the ARU star, especially if he turns out to be facing Cuthbert or Zebo.

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What is Shane Williams Doing on the Lions Tour?

When WoC looked at its twitter feed yesterday morning and saw that Shane Williams had been called up to the Lions we had to check the date and make sure it wasn’t April 1.  What the heck was Shane Williams doing being called out after a year in semi-retiurement in Japan?

Before getting too emotional about the tear-stained Lions jerseys and their almost spiritual qualities, it’s worth remembering exactly what Williams has been parachuted into the squad to do.  He’s there to play one midweek game, the one before the first test, before going home again, or back on the beer, or whatever he was doing.  Yes, the Lions is that last great tour on earth, and that should be respected, but we’re now living in an age where injuries are more prevalent than ever, and a bit of pragmatism is essential.  He’s been picked because he’s already in Australia and he does not have to overcome the same jetlag as, say, Christian Wade will have to.  He’s giving Gatty a dig out.  Wazza obviously feels he just needs a space-filler for this game, so as to avoid putting one of his test men on the pitch and risking them getting injured. Given the word on the street is that George North and Tommy Bowe will be available by the middle of next week, he’ll have a few more faces to choose from, so it’s not worth flying, say, Timbo Visser, halfway around the world for one game.  It’s a quick-fix.

Anyone who thinks the Lions shirt is being devalued by Shane Williams wearing it probably needs to look down the list of fair-to-middling players that have worn it: Andy Powell, Ugo Monye and Lee Mears spring to mind, and that was just the last tour. Have a look at the touring panel from 2005 and try reminding yourself of the magnificent feats of Gareth Cooper, Iain Balshaw and Ollie Smith. Shane Williams is a two-time Lions tourist and knows what it’s all about.  He was also a ridiculously good player, and will make the midweek team better to watch, even if it’s only for one game.  And if he’s even 15% as good as he was in his last game in an Ospreys jersey, which was only 12 months ago, when he was the matchwinner against Leinster in the Pro12 final, he’ll be more than up to task of filling in for the Lions in a midweek match.

But there are some counter-arguments.  Principally that it devalues the touring party and is a slight on players who have played all year to try and earn a shot at the Lions.  Given the one-shot nature of the call-up, would we prefer to have the jinking Welshman out there instead of, say, a jetlagged Tim Visser? Yes … if it’s a one-shot game. With the injuries coming thick and fast, who’s to say he won’t be needed more? What if Wade or Zebo get injured? At present, he’s 1.5 injuries away from a spot on the test bench, and, for that, I’d rather Visser to be frank – glorified training in Japan followed by a jolly around Oz just isn’t good enough preparation.

Andy Nicol was called up in exactly the same circumstances twelve years ago, and he prayed Matt Dawson wouldn’t get injured – he didn’t think he would last ten minutes. And Nicol hadn’t been in Japan for a year.

There is also the tightrope Gatty is walking with regard to Welsh players – if he picks his boys in all the 50-50s, having called up his mate from the bar, it’s not going to go down well in the squad. We’re sure Gatty has a plan to manage all this, but if Williams ends up being needed for the bench (or the field) in a test, a slightly madcap, fun-filled gamble will have backfired spectacularly.

Wazza’s World

Neil Francis said on Sunday that he would bet the house on Gatland naming a test backrow of his three Welsh golden boys Dan Lydiate, captain Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau.  It’s the backrow which dominated in the World Cup and the 2012 Six Nations, and seemingly the one Wazza would have left the northern hemisphere with designs on picking.

But in a unit of the team where competition for places which was fiendishly competitive to begin with, such a selection would fly in the face of current form.  Being an all-Welsh combination, it would also have the potential – from our viewpoint on the outside, anyway – to split the squad into factions.  Will it come to pass?

We’ve been trying to get inside Gatland’s head a little bit to resolve this one and it’s not easy.  We can use the fact that the first test is one Saturday from now to try and accrue tidbits of information, but even that is tricky.  Gatland will want to keep everyone – not least his own players – guessing as to what the test team will be until it’s announced.  Essentially, we have absolutely no idea what the backrow will be.  But here’s what little we can piece together.

1. Warburton is the captain, Gatland will want him in the team.

Yes, Wazza has said he wouldn’t necessarily pick his captain if others were playing better, but he’ll really, really want to not have to do that.  If nothing else, it would show up the mistake in naming him captain in the first place.  He’s made Warburton his leader and won’t want to go into battle without him.  He looked off the pace on Saturday but you can ink him down for saturday’s match because Gatland is going to give Warbs every chance to play himself into some form.  But this is last chance saloon stuff, with not one but two outstanding rivals for the test jumper, with Tipuric and O’Brien both showing electric form.

2. Heaslip ahead by a nose?

When Jamie Heaslip was called off the pitch after 50-something minutes, and replaced by Faletau, it put him in the box seat for saturday’s match.  Faletau started on Saturday and played 30 minutes yesterday, so he’s due a rest.  If Jamie can bring another good performance against the Waratahs, a test place is likely to follow, after Faletau failed to impress against the Reds.  Jamie’s captaincy woes of the Six Nations appear to be behind him and he has found some great form over the last two months.

3. Pay close attention to the No.6 jersey for the Waratahs match

Tom Croft has sat out the last two games after a mediocre showing against Western Force, so it’s his ‘turn’ to play 6 against the ‘Tahs.  But if Neil Francis is right, and Dan is the man for Gatland, he is way short of gametime and needs another match.  In short, if he is to start the first test, he has to play on Saturday.  If you see Dan Lydiate’s name on the teamsheet tomorrow, then take it that it’s a done deal and he’s in the test team.  If Croft is picked then Lydiate’s hopes recede and barring a spectacular performance from the gazelle-like Leiceter man – not impossible, but he hasn’t done much of note yet – Sean O’Brien becomes the likely test blindside.

This can go one of three ways:

1. The Sad Ending

Franno is right, and Gatland picks Lydiate, Warburton and Felatau.  Quite frankly, you would want to have pretty good reasons for leaving an in-form Sean O’Brien out of any team, but you’d need to have very strong convictions to pick two chaps ahead of him who aren’t playing especially well – and are perhaps not even fully match fit.  Expect the Irish media to go ballistic, but that might be the least of Gatland’s worries.  There’s every chance such a selection would result in discord in the camp and a splitting of the group into factions.  It would stink of the test team being picked before the plane even touched down in Hong Kong, and that nothing anybody did in the meantime could have made any difference.  Put simply, they would have to win the first test or there would be hell to pay.

2. The Mega Happy Ending

Form is king and Gatty picks the backrow which started yesterday; O’Brien, Tipuric and Heaslip.  After all, they’ve been the three most impressive performers and have the look of a balanced unit.  We’ve long been admirers of the sensational Justin Tipuric, and if selected, we’ve a sneaking suspicion he could go home from the tour a superstar.

3. The Scooby Doo Ending

Tom Croft plays against the ‘Tahs, wins six lineouts against the throw and makes not one, not two, but three of his trademark 50m line breaks in the outside centre channel, prompting Stuart Barnes to faint in the commentary box through sheer Oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ness and Crofty forces himself into the test team where he promptly retreats into his shell, makes four tackles, wins one lineout and carries three times for a gain of five metres.

The New Heinrich Brussow?

Back in 2009, when Ugo Monye and Andy Powell were Lions, and Ian McGeechan’s tears filled Lions training sessions and not Sky studios, the tourists opened with two pretty easy wins, against a “Royal XV” and the (Transvaal/Golden) Lions. Their third game was against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and was a hell of a close-run thing – the Lions went 20 points ahead early on, but the Cheetahs got closer and closer and the Lions eventually scraped home by two points.

The game was dominated by one Heinrich Brussow – the limpet-like openside owned the breakdown and the Lions got no decent ball for the last hour of the game. Brussow had been left out of the initial Springbok squad named by Crazy Piet de Villiers, and was somewhat of a cause celebre in the Republic (although not, amusingly, by that great exponent of openside flank play, George Hook – who hadn’t heard of him when questioned by Egg in advance of the game).

Brussow’s display was so good, he was drafted into the larger squad and ended up being one of the most influential players of the series – he started the first and third tests and came on in the second when the Boks were 11 points down.

Back to today, and, for the third game of this tour,  against the Queensland Reds, the hosts have named a team with their own cause celebre – Australia’s most naturally gifted footballer, Ed O’Donohue Quade Cooper. If Cooper shines against the Lions, and essentially forces Dingo Deans to call him up, just like Brussow did, it will spell bad news for the tourists. James O’Connor is currently being pencilled in as starting Wallaby outside-half, but it’s Cooper who is the better ten, a really dangerous one and a potential match-winner.

All the more reason to treat Saturday’s game as deadly serious – it might just directly affect the test series.  However, those of a parochial mindset should note that only one Irishman is in the starting line-up.  Time to start gtting enthusaistic about Matt Stevens and Owen Farrell.

Lions: Stuart Hogg (Scotland); Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ireland); Owen Farrell (England), B Youngs (England); Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Tom Youngs (England), Matt Stevens (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt), Toby Faletau Wales). Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Adam Jones (Wales), Paul O’Connell (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), George North (Wales).

Lion Kings

Something has been nagging at us recently – why are the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions favourites for the test series? On Betfair right now, the Lions are 1.7 and the Wobblies 2.6. We’re a bit confused. We don’t argue with the idea that this looks a good Lions squad – they’ve a nice blend of experience from four (and eight …. and twelve!) years ago and young tyros, have an excellent fly half, and are playing in the easiest place top tour of the three Southern Hemisphere biggies.

But … favourites? Part of us thinks that no invitational team, no matter how many of Ian McGeechan’s tears are stitched into the shirt, should ever beat a test nation worth its salt. Another, more romantic, part watches the footage of the 1974 tour and thinks anything is possible. Still … favourites?

The Six Nations, opening weekend and final game aside, was an abomination this year, characterised by stodgy rugby, low skill levels and 6.5’s (Justin Tipuric aside). The best two club teams in the Northern Hemisphere, Toulon and Clermont, have precisely one representatives on tour – Toulon bench-warmer Gethin Jenkins. Admittedly, that is partly out of choice of the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions coaches; and the other standout of recent years, Leinster, have six.

Recent statistics aren’t imposing, but are certainly in the Australians favour:

  • Since the last Lions tour, Australia have won 12, drawn 1 and lost 8 of their 21 homes games – four of the losses have been to New Zealand, one to South Africa and one to Samoa
  • They have beaten Wales (3), Ireland (1) and England (1) in that period, and lost to England (1) and Scotland (1) – thats a 5-2 win-loss record at home
  • Australia have eight successes in a row against Wales, and have won 17 of 20, with one draw, since the game went open]
  • Last November, the Australians won in Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium

Also, what about the world rankings? Australia are third, a cigarette paper behind South Africa, and with some daylight between themselves and England (4), Wales (5), Ireland (9) and Scotland (10). The Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions are composed of the cream of those four (plus Matt Stevens), but in reality, the Test side is going to be mostly a Welsh-Irish composite, or, in other words, a fifth-ninth composite. Does fifth-ninth beat third? Maybe.

We think the Lions favouritism is actually majorly driven by all the doubts surrounding this Aussie team. The bond between management, players and fans seems loose, at best, right now. Their best player is out in the cold (for the moment). They have a propensity to occasionally lose to inferior sides. But still, the best side in Super Rugby so far this season is the ACT Brumbies. The Queensland Reds won it the year before last. Its only halfway through the year for them, unlike their opponents. It just seems odd that the Lions are so fancied, and for the first time in living memory.

Since the Invincibles tour, the Lions have won two Test series from nine – 1989 in Australia and 1997 in South Africa. In 1989, the team was dominated by England and Scotland sides that went on to complete memorable Grand Slams  and contest a RWC semi-final in 1991. The 1997 South African tourists largely laid the template for the new pro-style Lions tours, with shorter duration, rampant commericialism and dewey-eyed reverence for a concept that seemed not to have a modern relevance.

This team will be dominated by Wales and Ireland – and Wales have lost all eight games against Australia in the last four years, while Ireland are coming off their worst Six Nations ever. The Liiiiiiiiiiiiions will need to call on all of that history, and hope that the players can rise to the occasion. Its going to be a massive challenge, and we are struggling with the idea that the Lions are genuine favourites.

ADDITION TO POST:

We’re aware Betfair odds (and to an extent bookies odds) are driven by supply and demand, but they are also driven by rational investors. Is it rational to have the Lions at 1.7?

Judgement Call

We are struggling to think of anything as unbelievable (in this sense of not being believable) as Dylan Hartley being sent off in a Premiership final for calling Wayne Barnes a “f*cking cheat”. Its just so crazy. Consider this:

  • He is captain of the Saints
  • It was one of the biggest games of his career
  • He had previously been warned by Barnes for verbals
  • He was due to fly out on a Lions tour in a matter of days
  • Barnes had flagged his desire not to be making high-profile decisions, following some previous controversies in Premiership playoffs (e.g. Chris Ashton getting binned for being lamped by Manu)

As sporting meltdowns go, it takes some topping – Zinedine Zidane and Richie Tennenbaum are about the only ones we can think of.

Hartley will miss the Lions tour, for which Rory “Nice-but-throws-awry” Best has been called up in his stead. Best is the classiest of chaps, as evidenced by his tweet in the aftermath of not being selected initially – he referred to how this paled into insignificance compared to the bigger things in life, such as the Nevin Spence tragedy.

Like injury being Ireland’s best selector, perhaps Hartley’s meltdown has been Gatty’s – there is a recent history of late callups playing key roles in Lions’ series (Paul Wallace, Tom Croft) and Besty, although clearly third choice right now, has a chance to do the same. Having said that, he is clearly third choice by now – unlike Tom Youngs (Premiership Player of the Year) and Richard Hibbert (standout hooker in the Six Nations), and wasn’t selected initially for a good reason – he simply wasn’t playing well enough.

What it also calls into question, however, is Gatty’s judgement – he considered Hartley to have the talent and mental capacity to thrive on a Lions tour – that assessment is in tatters after Saturday, and if the tour starts to go wrong, it will  be used as a stick to beat Gatty with. He’s been rowing back a bit since Saturday, talking about how he agonized afterwards had he made the right decision, and talked about Graham Rowntree’s input, but the buck stops with him, and he picked Hartley.

The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man, and the semi-mythic status of the red jersey reflects that. For example, Gerald Davies was just keeping his shirt warm for Ugo Monye, and he’ll pass it on to George North, and so on.

Without getting too teary about it, any discussion of the Lions is incomplete without a reference to “character” – is Player X a Lion, they’ll say, which has a greater implication than his ability – it talks to more earthy qualities, like smiling through midweek games with NSW Country and being a “good tourist”.  Hartley always struck us as an odd selection, even leaving aside our Besty-love – he routinely cracks under pressure, and has accumulated multiple bans. Gatty’s faith in him has been shredded in spectacular fashion – let’s hope he gets more calls right than wrong from here on.

Outrage Bingo Cards at the Ready

The moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived; the Lions squad is out!

Ultimately it was a slightly underwhelming announcement with few of the fireworks some expected Gatland to provide.  The late bolts from flair players went largely unrewarded, and Simon Zebo, Christian Wade, Ian Madigan and James Hook will all have to look to national summer tours for rugby, injury call-ups notwithstanding.

We got much right in our predictions, and some things wrong.  Kearney snuck in the door as one of three specialist full-backs.  At centre they’ve chosen a strangely unbalanced crew, all 13s and only one 12.  Is Brian O’Driscoll being considered for the role of inside centre, or at least providing cover there?  How this pans out will be interesting.  As such, it’s even more surprising that no utility back has been selected.

The third tighthead – a position where we really struggled to identify a worthy player – went to Matt Stevens rather than Euan Murray.  Stevens looks somewhat past his best, but with Dan Cole and Adam Jones already universally agreed upon, the role of third man is of limited importance.

At fly-half, where Jonny Wilinson’s credentials were apparently re-considered at the last.  Farrell has survived the late challenge and travels as one of only two 10s.  He can consider himself a very lucky boy.  It leaves Jonny Sexton with a virtual walk-in to the test team.

Robshaw Misses Out

Picture the scene.  The English side you’ve captained have won four from four in the Six Nations, having beaten the All Blacks in November.  Your leadership of the team has been roundly praised.  Win your final game – a tricky one against a resurgent Wales in Cardiff – and you are a grand-slam winning captain in a Lions year.  In short, you are in the box seat; immortality beckons.

But the game in Wales is a disaster.  The Welsh – with a backrow containing two breakaways – play at a tempo that you cannot live with and the result is a hammering, 30-3.  It even swings the championship their way on points difference.  But at least the Heineken Cup to come, there is a chance of a reprieve, and your club has a manageable quarter-final, at home to a Munster side having a ho-hum season.  But unthinkably, you lose, somehow allowing the Munster players to dominate collisions and the breakdown.  Your own performance is totally dominated by some unknown fellow, Tommy Donnelly, or something.  How has this happened?  Suddenly, from Lions captain, you’re facing an anxious wait, and the best you can hope for is (Lions bingo moment) a stint as mideek captain, manning it up with the dirt trackers…

So it came to be that Chris Robshaw missed out on Lions selection.  And it’s hard to argue with Gatland’s selection.  In the event he’s chosen flankers with highly specialised talents, rather than hard working types who don’t excel in any particular area.  On the openside, he has breakdown specialist Warburton and exceptional link-man Justin Tipuric.  Both are specialist 7s.  On the blind side he’s given himself healthy variety with an outstanding ball-carrier in Sean O’Brien, a super-fit all-action tackling machine in Dan Lydiate and a superb linout operator with the added bonus of terrific pace in Tom Croft.

Croft has nothing like the work rate of Robshaw, but he is a technician in the set piece and his outside break and fend can occasionally result in 50m gains (you could even say that Croft’s pace will be needed on the hard grounds – scatch off another Lions bingo square).  It’s the specialist versus the generalist, and the specialist has won out.  England might be content to put out backrows made up of three identikit six-and-a-halves, but that sort of rugby is anathema to Gatty, and he’s been vocal on the topic for over a year now.

Reprieve for the Irish

On saturday we thought the papers selecting nine Irish Lions were being generous to themselves in the extreme.  We had it at seven.  In the end, we upped it to eight, making room for Conor Murray late in the day.  In the event they’ve got nine, one less than England but six more than Scotland.  It doesn’t square with the Six Nations table.  Gatland has essentially given these high quality players a reprieve: ‘Look, chaps’, he appears to be saying ‘the Six Nations was rubbish but you and I both know that Deccie was a busted flush and the team was a mess.  I know you’re better than that and we’re going to put all that behind us and teach these Aussies a lesson about rugby’.

With Wales having come up just short against Australia in every recent encounter he knows he needs to add some of the Irish (specifically Leinster) guile and craft to the square-and-straight approach favoured by Wales, in order to make the difference.  It looks like he’ll be going with the Welsh 12 and outside backs, plus Sexton and O’Driscoll – but don’t bet against Bowe squeezing in by Test time.  They’ll bring some subtlety to proceedings, creating space, running angles, bringing the big Welsh runners into play in a more subtle fashion, rather than just trying to bash holes and getting nowhere.

Among the Irish selected, a number will be likely test starters.  Sexton, Healy and BOD are in pole position, and the likes of O’Connell, O’Brien, Healsip and Bowe would have a very strong chance of making the test team once they bring their best form.

Those looking to complete a full house on their Lions Outrage bingo cards should be directed to English websites, where no doubt their low representation on the touring party will not be going down well.  At the height of Robshaw-mania mid-Six Nations, the Torygraph projected a Lions team with no less than seven English forwards.  This will not be coming to pass.  Further outrage is likely to be garnered on the tour itself, where much of the English look like midweek material.  Tom Youngs, Matt Stevens or Owen Farrell for the test team?  No thanks.

One of the English forwards going is Nice Guy Dylan H*****y – it’s heavily ironic for Rory Best, for after the Ulster evisceration of the Saints in Franklins Gardens, containing a total Hartley-domination by the Armagh man, you would have got very long odds on Hartley going and Best not. Best has essentially played himself off the plane with some desperate lineout work in recent months.  Hartley’s Northampton haven’t exactly been the toast of Europe this season, and he lost his England jumper to Tom Youngs – it’s hard to convince oneself he’s a richly deserving tourist.

Sam The Eagle is Captain

Gatland has looked past the huge experience and inspirational leadership of the two Irish candidates, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, instead sticking by his Welsh captain Sam Warburton.  It looks a risky call.  There have been doubts over Warb’s form and fitness over the last twelve months (O’Driscoll and O’Connell are also regularly on the treatment table, it must be said) and it wasn’t long ago he was out of the Welsh starting team, dropped for the electric Tipuric.  It also appears he declined the opportunity to captain Wales in their final game, in a desire to focus on his own game.  Selfless act, taking one for the team, or a shirking of his duties?  In the event Wales played brilliantly and Warb was superb, so he probably deserves the benfit of any doubt.

It leaves the touring party looking very Welsh indeed.  Welsh coaches, Welsh captain, large Welsh contingent.  Given the large number of Welsh in the party, they might have responded better to a new, outsider’s voice.  Is there a risk of the tour group breaking into factions?  Gatland being Gatland, he doesn’t tend to pay lip service to politics (he once picked a team containing 13 Ospreys for Wales) and would be of the mind that his best man for the job is the best man for the job, and that’s that.

To be fair to Gatland, he has done his best to play down the significance of the role, even saying it will have no bearing on selection and he will happily pick a test team without his captain if that’s what’s required.  Nonetheless, those steeped in – Skyhype alert – the culture and history of the Lions will know the significance of captaining the touring party.  This is Sam’s moment, he must deliver on it in the matches themselves, which, although a sideshow to the main event of selection, can be worth a passing glance.

Liiiiiiions – The Back Division

‘Immortality’ is just 24 hours away according to the Skyhype machine.  You don’t even have to play well to be immortal these days, just getting named on a touring panel and playing a few non-test games in Australia on Wednesday nights is apparently enough.  But then we all know the truth – the endless speculation and selection of the squad, and ultimately of the test team is what the Lions is all about, as opposed to the matches, which the Lions almost always lose anyway.  So, with that in mind, on with the show…

Scrum Half: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray

The only certainty here is that Mike Phillips is traveling.  In spite of mucking around in the lower end of the Top 14, he appears able to show his class when the occasion demands it.  His performance against England in the Six Nations was a reminder that no other European scrum-half can dominate matches like he does.  Outside of Phillips, things get tricky. It looks like two from four between Greig Laidlaw, Conor Murray and the two Englishmen, Danny Care and Ben Youngs.  It all rather depends on what Gatland is looking for to compliment Phillips, who will doubtless start the test matches.  A like-for-like replacement?  That’d be Murray.  A totally different player to provide a Plan B?  Try Ben Youngs, who’s all about tempo.  An impact substitute?  Danny Care, who excels against tiring defences, would fit the bill.  Or someone who can provide versatility and cover 10 in midweek games?  Greig Laidlaw is the man.  We got a touch overexcited a few weeks back and proclaimed Care our test staring outhalf, prompting him into a series of eye-wateringly bad performances.  He may now miss out to his compatriot Youngs.  Conor Murray’s recent form probably just squeezes him onto the plane.

Outhalf: Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Hook

Jonny Sexton has been de facto test starting 10 for some time, and has hit form promptly on his return from injury.  Options to back him up have been troublingly lacking since Rhys Priestland went from crisis to injury – with the exception of the glorious, un-ageing Jonny Wilkinson. If Toulon had any notion of releasing their prize asset for a muckaround against New South Wales Country to give him a chance to prove his fitness to Graham Rowntree, he’d be on the plane. But they won’t, and he won’t be either.

Owen Farrell seems the likely beneficiary, despite his vast shortcomings as a fly-half.  On Sunday, one canny tweeter noted that he was the third best Lions-eligible fly-half on the pitch in Saracens’ gloomy defeat to Toulon.  He will be a fortunate tourist – it’s mad that an extra week watching videos of Gareth Edwards is considered better preparation than a Top 14 final, but hey, there you go.  With only two dedicated 10s traveling, a utility player will probably be included in the touring party.  The obvious name is James Hook, and Sky were only too happy to turn Friday night’s Amlin semi-final into the ‘Will James Hook Go On The Lions Show’.  Hook can play 10, 12, 13 and 15, has Lions experience, and speaks with a Welsh lilt – he fits the bill. He’s under pressure after an impressive late dash from Ian Madigan, but the Leinsterman may just miss out due to lack of experience, though he might be first reserve.

Centres: Jamie Roberts, Ooooooooooooooohh Brad Barritt, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi

Jamie Roberts, once fit, is a guaranteed starter, and there are a lack of test class options to back him up.  Brad Barritt is an iron-clad defender and little more, and will have ‘midweek’ written all over him.  Outside, it’s two from three between O’Driscoll, Tuilagi and the resurgent Jonathan Davies.  O’Driscoll’s leadership, class and partnership with Roberts are surely worth a last hurrah.  His form for Leinster is excellent.  Take your pick between Davies and Manu; we’d lean slightly towards the Ashton-lamper – and not just for that, his power and eye for a gap will discommode the Wallabies more than Davies defence and intelligent lines. Stephen Jones flew the highly interesting kite that BOD was being considering as the Test 12 – if that is the case, and with Hook in the squad, Davies might squeeze out Barritt.

Wings: Tommy Bowe, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland

An area of no little depth.  North will be a Lion, the rest are uncertain.  His compatriot Cuthbert mixed the downright awful with the outstanding in the Six Nations.  He can be a defensive liability or unplayable in attack, sometimes both in the same match.  Sean Maitland oozes Kiwi class and is at the core of Glasgow’s superb finish to the season.  Bowe has looked pin-sharp since returning and is proven class.  He probably just – just! – edges out Simon Zebo, who is a touch unlucky – he picked a bad time to look nervous on Saturday, but he’s probably only one injury from a call-up.  Tim Visser, an out of form Chris Ashton and a fastman like Cristian Wade are probably on the radar but just outside the squad.

Full Back: Stuart Hogg, Lee 0.5p

Rob Kearney excelled on tour in 2009, and was so good in 2012 that it seemed unthinkable he wouldn’t be on the tour.  His claims are looking shaky right now, and he is relying on Gatland bringing three specialist 15s.  Ahead of him Lee 0.5p was Six Nations player of the championship and Hogg is greased lightning and made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Behind in the queue are a bunch of Englishmen; Goode, Brown and Ben Foden, another player who at his best would be a shoo-in, but is out of the picture.

For those not selected, it’s worth remembering that close to double figures of players were flown out as replacements in 2009, so all is not lost.  Modern rugby being as it is, a handful of players will suffer a heartbreaking injury between now and the opening test.  In 2009, Tom Croft was not even named in the original squad, with Alan Quinlan preferred, but we all know what happened to Quinny (remember it’s no fun being cited, folks), and in the end Crofty started all three tests and scored two tries in the first.  So the likes of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo might get out there yet.

The Lions Tour – It’s Here

The Sky Sports montage of African lions cavorting around Uluru suddenly magically transports them to Sydney Opera House – they gradually fade away to leave an image of a slim-looking guy who bears a passing resemblence to a certain corpulent former England centre now on the Beeb dropping a goal. He in turn fades into a tearful Phil Vickery and a heartbroken Shawsie. Music turns into a deep minor key – flim moves on to a smiling Beast, tries by Tom Croft, BOD mouthing “bring it on”, injured players exiting stage left, Jacque Fourie showing a woozy Rog who is boss, and then finally a winning penalty from Morne.

Simon Lazenby can barely conceal his glee, it’s the Lions! Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions! Tearful tributes to a professional anachronism abound, the merits of old school touring are tarted up with sepia paint, Ian McGeechan has been wheeled out, and – finally – it’s squad announcement time. Tingles!!

We’re going to second guess Gatty and co. We have steadfastedly avoided naming a squad until now and instead skirted the issue by talking about Israel Folau and bolters and such. But we can avoid no longer. Egg will see which fatties are going to need their official jackets taken out, while later Palla is going to investigate which flash backs will be anxiously checking Australian import regulations on ylang-ylang tree oil.

Loosehead Props: Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Mako Vunipola. Jenkins may tell Toulon to stuff their playoff matches and head off on the tour if called upon.  He’s been out of favour, but is such a good player he’s worth bringing, and then who knows?  It looks like a shootout between him and the explosive Healy to start the tests, with Vunipola a potential impact sub.  If Jenkins isn’t released by Toulon, the capable Ryan Grant will go.

Hookers: Ross Ford, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs. Hibbard and Youngs are nailed on. The third slot is pretty open, with Rory Best slowly unbolting over the last four months.  On a tour without many standout Scottish options, Gatty might take this opportunity to get one in and avoid more tears from Geech – Ford to go ahead of Rory Best and Dylan H*****y.

Tighthead Props: Dan Cole, Adam Jones, Euan Murray. Not much debate here – the only question was would Mike Ross have a good enough season to displace the three ogres. In the event, he hasn’t, and has looked extremely fatigued to boot. In fact, let’s hope Schmidty leaves him here instead of bringing him to North America.  Euan Murray has done little of late, but might travel on reputation.

Second Row: Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Geoff Parling. The above is all contingent on Gray being fit enough – if he isn’t, Joe Launchbury is the obvious one-for-one replacement. Donnacha Ryan has been usurped by his provincial colleague Paulie; it’s unlikely both will be picked. Evans and O’Connell are favourites for the test jumpers at this juncture, but Alun Wyn Jones added serious value to Wales’ Six Nations campaign once he returned from injury. Big Jim Hamilton had a great Six Nations, but, despite much shorter arms, Parling holds him off due to greater mobility and athleticism.

Blindside Flankers: Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Tom Wood. Media darling Crofty is squeezed out again – in an attritional position, he’ll probably end up out there at any rate. Fez probably would have toured were he fit, and Dan Lydiate takes that role, having returned from injury with the Dragons, and looked in acceptable nick. He’s a prototype 6 and worth the risk.  Wood and O’Brien can cover 8 if necessary, and O’Brien allegedly 7 as well.

Openside Flankers: Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (c). Warburton will be Gatty’s go-to leader guy – he’s done the job before, and Gatland is fine with him not necessarily being first choice. And it’s no surprise he isn’t, for Justin Tipuric has been the stand-out openside this year. Honest Chris Robshaw misses out – he just hasn’t been good enough since his February displays, and the two selected are pure class, and highly specialised talents.

Number Eights: Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip. Faletau is nailed on, and favourite for the test jumper. We think Gatty will bring one other specialist 8, which makes it Heaslip vs Johnnie Beattie. Heaslip is simply in better form, and when he is allowed to play his natural role, has had a good season – his barnstorming performance on Saturday (15 carries for 124 metres and top of the tackle count) probably booked him his airline ticket.

That’s 21 forwards, and we think 16 backs will accompany them. It’s an unanswered question who will be in charge of fines on tour – tight five forwards usually revel in this role, is Ian Evans a contender?

Palla will be back later on to resolve the other big selection dilemmas facing Gatty:

  • Will La Rochelle release Lesley Vainikolo from their Pro D2 playoff commitments?
  • Can Donncha O’Callaghan oust George North for a wing slot?
  • If Graeme Morrison isn’t available, who is favourite for to back up Jamie Roberts?

Lions Post #6: The Three Amigos

When Dingo Deans announced the names for the first Wallaby training camp, there were two big names missing – Quade Cooper was out of favour after some artistic differences with Dingo last year, and Kurtley Beale is indefinitely suspended from rugby by the ARU while he deal with some off-field issues.

Both these players, on form, are sumptuous and gifted attackers, and give Australia a big X-factor (thanks, Gerry). On the other hand, in tandem with James O’Connor, they are a handful to manage. Rather like Alex Ferguson in the 1980s when Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside were sacrificed for Steve Bruce and Neil Webb, Dingo is trading down on talent but up on camp harmony. At least that is the plan.

But it does weaken the Wallaby backline quite substantially – no team wouldn’t miss players of the calibre of Cooper or Beale. Or does it?

While the backline could be: Genia, Cooper, Ioane, Leali’ifano, AAC, O’Connor, Beale; it’s likely to look more like: Genia, O’Connor, Ioane, Leali’ifano, AAC, Folau, Barnes.

The replacements in the first XV could be Israel Folau and Berrick Barnes – not bad. Where is does make the Wallabies weaker is in the depth charts – after those, you have Jesse Mogg, then you are into the Pat McCabes and Ben Taupuis of this world.

The three amigos might have been broken up, but it appears the Wallabies might be able to manage without them – and probably be more likely to be twenty-three amigos.